The announcement first appeared in the January, 1832 number of the Christian Messenger. It read:
While the Kentucky Christians and the Reformers called for unity, the frontier society had no practical example of it until the union at Georgetown.
This page presents the movement's concept of unity and then trace how it worked out in the first American union of two separate movements.
I. The restoration concept of unity
Many think the Restoration Movement seeks the union of denominations or the merging of local congregations. Others think unity simply requires a recognition of anyone professing Jesus as Lord.
Restoration fathers held an idea of Christian unity which differs sharply from either of those two views. They believed sincere followers of Jesus existed in all of the day's denominations and sects. They understood, too, that Jesus desired his disciples be united (John 17:21). They also believed that such unity could not be invisible. Basic to their whole idea was the fact that for which Christ prayed should result in the evangelization of the world. Any real unity needed to find its basis in God's Word. This unity could be nothing else than the coming together of those honestly seeking God's will who determine to make the Bible their sole guide in matters of faith and practice.
The Restoration Movement extended this call for unity to individuals. They called to them to "come out from among them and be separate...." None of the Restoration fathers displayed an interest in simply uniting congregations or denominations. D.S. Burnet described what it would take:
Campbell later (1837) added his comments in the Millennial Harbinger:
Again, Alexander Campbell wrote, "By Christian UNITY, we understand a spiritual oneness with Christ."
II. The union of Christians and Reformers
Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone first met in Georgetown, Kentucky. You'll find differing opinions about their subsequent relationship. McAllister and Tucker, Disciples historians, remark that "the two men, quite different in many ways, never became close personal friends." M.M. Davis, a turn of the century historian, said, "Theirs was a case of esteem and love on first sight, and this feeling continued to the end of life." Davis quotes Stone as saying:
Looking at their stormy correspondence carried on in the pages of the Millennial Harbinger and the Christian Messenger, I cannot but agree with McAllister and Tucker. That the two men respected each other there is no doubt. You can respect another in spite of sharp differences. It goes too far, however, to call them "friends." The relation he had with his opponent in the Owen debate shows that Campbell could be cordial, even friendly with his opponents in debate. Nonetheless, the invective Campbell used in his Harbinger articles and Stone's responses show a harshness that couldn't be overcome. Had it not been for others, the union of the two groups might never have happened.
Much separated the Christians and the Reformers. Still, there were similarities. Observers noticed these similarities. Stone wrote:
Campbell replied by asking Stone what he meant by "united in form." Campbell went on to relate the differences existing between the two movements.
What were the similarities? Both Reformers and Christians held to the all-sufficiency of Scripture and the rejection of human creeds. Both movements looked to the Bible as their final authority. Both movements emphasized unity and were agreed on the nature of faith. The Reformers emphasized baptism more strongly than the Christians, but both believed it to be immersion for remission of sins. They also agreed on congregational autonomy which they held out as the New Testament norm.
What were the differences? Numerous differences separated the two groups and they loomed large in any discussion of union. Alexander Campbell, in particular, found it difficult to overcome some of these differences. Doctrinal issues separated the two movements and their leaders. Campbell held strongly to trinitarian theology. Campbell refused to use the term Trinity because he could not find it in Scripture. Nonetheless, he believed strongly in the equality of all three persons in the Godhead. Barton W. Stone did not share that conviction. While Stone took no adamant position, he tended to place Jesus in a subordinate position to God. This fact alone caused Campbell to question Stone's orthodoxy. He suspected that he might well be Socinian or Unitarian and this one point formed a strong argument against union. Campbell also took a much stronger view of the Atonement. Stone accepted the "Moral Influence Theory" which stated that Christ's death simply served to morally influence man to be reconciled to God. Campbell argued that the Atonement was the cause and reconciliation the effect of Christ's death. The two groups also differed over the name. Campbell preferred "Disciples" for individual Christians since we are learners at Jesus's feet. Stone preferred the name "Christian" for all the reasons so ably outlined in "Sacred Import." The two movements also used different evangelistic methods. Stone tended towards revivalism with its emotional appeals while Campbell opted for a more reasoned and calm approach. McAllister and Tucker mention just a couple of other items:
You can immediately see there were substantial differences. Published interchanges between the two leaders reached such a pitch that reconciliation seemed almost impossible. Probably the movements would not have united were it not for the persistence of other Restoration Movement leaders.
When the Reformers experienced difficulty with the Baptists, the door for union with the Christians began to open. When the Baptists and Reformers split, new congregations formed in communities where Christian congregations already existed. In fact, the Baptists and the Christians seemed to be particularly strong in the same areas -- Kentucky and Ohio. Those in outlying areas soon saw the two groups' similarities. In 1828, members of the Christian Church in Cooper's Run, Kentucky, opened their pulpit and communion table to all believers. By September 19, 1828, the Christians expressed their willingness to "mingle" with the Disciples during a conference at Antioch, Kentucky. The first formal union occurred at Millersburg, Kentucky, not far from Cane Ridge on April 24, 1831.
Campbell and Stone had nothing to do with the Millersburg union. Throughout 1831 the two leaders engaged in heated correspondence over the concepts of union. At the same time some of that degenerated into claims of priority.
Such a petty problem to take up the pages of their two influential publications.
John T. Johnson and the colorful Raccoon John Smith promoted the union to its conclusion. Stone met John T. Johnson, a member of the Kentucky legislature turned preacher, in Kentucky. Stone invited Johnson, a Reformer, to co-edit Stone's paper following the union. Once these two men struck up their friendship, their two congregations in Georgetown agreed to worship together. They announced meetings to be held in Georgetown on December 23-26 specifically to discuss union. They also announced similar meetings in Lexington, Kentucky, for the same period on through January 2, 1832. They held the larger meetings at Lexington's Hill Street Church. Stone and Smith served as spokesmen. Raccoon John Smith arose first:
Stone, deeply moved, replied, "I have not one objection to the ground laid by him as the true scriptural [sic] basis of union among the people of God; and I am willing to give him, now and here, my hand."
Stone published the union's announcement in his paper along with a spirited defense. Campbell, who was hardly enthusiastic, expressed guarded hope for the venture. Stone was elated! Methodist circuit rider Peter Cartwright wrote:
The united churches sent Raccoon John Smith and John Rogers as evangelists promoting the uniting of other Christian and Reformer churches. No organization existed to approve such union so congregations continued uniting on local levels for years. John Longley (Christian) and John P. Thompson (Reformer) led unity efforts in Indiana which included the Blue River Baptists, Dunkards, Newlights, as well as the Silver Creek Association.
Unity did not come without difficulty. Problems arose but most were trivial. In Georgetown, a "blow up" occurred over the nature of the ministry in 1832. Christians believed an ordained minister needed to be present to observe communion. Reformers held that an elder could provide communion. This difference of opinion caused some difficulty and the Reformers withdrew to their old building for a time to continue regular communion services. In time, they worked out the issue.
Things went less smoothly in New England. The leadership of the New England Christians strongly opposed union with the Campbellites. They felt Campbell was legalistic, particularly regarding his views on the necessity of immersion. Alexander Campbell opposed union with the New England Christians because he classified them as Unitarians. Stone often found himself attacked by both groups.
The union proved significant. When the union occurred there were approximately 10,000 Stoneites and some 12,000 Campbellites. Once the union was complete the movement exploded and numbered 190,000 within 30 years. More importantly, the union of Christians and Reformers demonstrated that even those with differing opinions could unite when they agreed on the essentials.
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